Redistribution of Wealth


The problem started when the video game Defender was installed by the front door of Charlie’s Hot Wieners at the bottom of my street in Providence, RI. Or maybe the problem was that Charlie’s was only a three-minute walk from my house instead of the twenty minutes to Thayer Street and all the other video games at Store 24 and Spats. Either way, it was too close and too addictive and it ate my quarters as fast I could earn them.

One day I mowed Mrs. Allen’s lawn, got my ten dollars, and went straight to Charlie’s where I played 40 games in 45 minutes. I left swearing I would never plug another quarter into that demonic machine. I also left wishing I had done better, that my best scores weren’t always 100,000 points lower than the highest score. I wanted to leave feeling satisfied, like after a good track workout when I felt tired and calm and fully in myself. Defender left me feeling twitchy and frustrated and always wanting another game.

My younger brother, John, was better than I was but no less addicted. He didn’t mow lawns, however, or babysit as often as I did, so he had to get by on his allowance, which was only enough for sixteen games a week. That’s like being put on a poverty diet, getting slim from empty cupboards. John was not in the habit of denying himself, and one day when we’d played together, and neither of us had done well, and we were walking home griping about how little money we had, he mentioned our sister Felicie’s fifty-cent piece collection.

Felicie was the oldest, and the only saver of the three of us. She’d still have Halloween candy come Thanksgiving, while John’s and mine would be gone by November 1. She’d spent a season waitressing at Newport Creamery and kept every fifty-cent piece she got as a tip in a Band-Aid tin on the bookshelf in her room. John had discovered this stash, and one day, when he was alone and particularly bored and feeling particularly poor, snuck into her room and borrowed one coin for a couple of games. He neglected to pay her back, but she also never seemed to miss what he’d taken. It was just one coin after all.

“We’ll pay her back,” he said.

“We will?”

“Of course.”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “Next time I mow Mrs. Allen’s lawn I’ll take the money and turn it into fifty-cent pieces and that’ll be fine.”

“Right!”

It did not feel right dumping the coins out of the tin and stuffing them in our pockets. Not like when you open a pizza box and the smell hits you before you take your first slice, or when you buy a new book and read the first, fresh page. There had been no invitation, except what that hungry, bored, impatient creature in me perceived when he saw something he wished was his, wished would end the ceaseless craving, the bottomless-stomach feeling that nothing was ever enough.

We played without joy or satisfaction. Our scores stunk. I was already regretting that I’d spent what I hadn’t earned, that the next lawn I mowed would be mowed on credit. I also knew there was a difference between coins collected one-by-one, and coins handed to you in a heap. She wouldn’t feel the same about the collection because it wouldn’t be a collection anymore.

Two days later, before I’d mowed anything, John was lying in bed when he heard Felicie and her friend Laurie in her room. Laurie said, “Hey, Felicie. What’s supposed to be in this tin?” A brief, shocked silence followed before Felicie stormed out of her room and downstairs and straight to our mother.

“John stole all my fifty-cent pieces!”

John, given his reputation in our family, was not offended that she thought to blame him without evidence.

“Well, why are you yelling at me?” my mom asked.

Felicie stomped back upstairs and busted into his room. He hid under his covers, but they provided flimsy shelter from Felicie’s outrage. He apologized and said he would pay her back, which she said he damn well would. He borrowed money from my mom and then eventually paid her back from some babysitting.

I was not around for this scene and would have felt worse about John taking the fall if he hadn’t been so willing to do so. He seemed to want to make amends, perhaps for some other transgressions as well. I eventually confessed to my part of the heist, but by that time the family had moved on and our caper was becoming a story we could all tell. I was relieved this was the case, but it also didn’t surprise me.

Love is nothing if not incredibly consistent. It always has enough for anyone who would accept its invitation.

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